22 August 2017

Review - All the Wicked Girls

All the Wicked Girls
Chris Whitaker
Zaffre, 24 August 2017
PB, 433pp

I'm grateful to the publisher for an advance copy of this book.

All the Wicked Girls is described as a crime novel, and it certainly features crimes - many crimes, in fact, over and above the disappearances of young women that are the focus of the story - but it's much more than that. Indeed, the crimes(s) are perhaps more of a backdrop, a way into a wounded community and a way of understanding a cast of wounded people.

The young men, Noah and Purv, who set out to find Summer Ryan, bear wounds. So does Summer, the latest in a series of young women who have vanished, raising concerns that the mysterious abductor, "The Bird" is active again. (Or did she just run away? And if so, why?)

There is Raine, Summer's sister, who joins with Noah and Purv and, it has to be said, drives much of the search. She's determined, ruthless and, by her own estimation, not a good girl. Yet she is also self-destructive, as is Black, town sheriff of Grace, a wounded man if ever there was one, laden with guilt over the death of a friend.

A local minister, Bobby, and his wife Savannah, who lost their young boy in tragic circumstances.

Samson, an albino man tormented by his father, Bobby's predecessor.

And that's before we even get to Summer's and Raine's wild father Joe, who marches his "boys", rifles held high, onto the town square to pressurise Black; or the odious Ray Bowdoin, or Peach, the sex worker and mother of the first missing woman.

Whitaker conveys the sense of a community on the edge - hollowed out by corrosive market forces, losing jobs, blighted by drink and drugs and now, the final blow, seeing its young women disappear into the aptly named Hell's Gate National Forest. Against this background, his characters seem to struggle like flies on sticky paper. Missing Summer, who voice some of the chapters, is offered the chance of "escape" via her musical talent (her voice certainly comes over as more literate than most of the other narrators) but seems lukewarm about the idea (while clearly deeply committed to her music). I was reminded of the self destructive rage and rebellion in The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner, the way the runner of the title throws the race rather than collude with respectable values.

Black himself, at the centre of the search for Summer, is in despair, resorting to drugs to keep going - and the townsfolk doubt both his commitment and his ability to rescue their daughters. He also has to deal with any number of raging, violent, drunk fathers, resorting to fists and boots to control their sons and daughters: any number of gun wielding men riding into town in their trucks to threaten order: any amount of swindling, bullying and blackmail. All presenting him with a truly bewildering web to unpick if he wants to solve the case.

Such progress as there is seems to come, not surprisingly, from Raine, Noah and Purv - the "adults" in the town being both more interested in locking horns than trying to find Summer and also distracted by the subsidiary rivalries and buried secrets that come to light over the course of the book. But that progress is won at a price. It's a dark and often sad story, portraying a community that seems to have nothing left except its guns and Bibles, and which sees them both as weapons. The position of women in this society is especially grim: a women's health clinic that tries to support is, in effect, declared outside the protection of the law.

The bleakness is though redeemed by the friendship - no, the love - between Noah and Purv ("we're brave and we're fierce!") and, increasingly, Raine. Despite hard, hard lives the two manage to find humour, albeit dark humour, and they look out for one another and, in searching for her sister, for Raine, too.

It's great writing, capturing the voices of the protagonists perfectly and deftly revealing the central mystery - what actually happened to Summer and the others? - only slowly, keeping the reader hooked throughout. Only one element of the story jarred. At the beginning of the book there is a storm coming. That's a bit over portentous, perhaps, but understandable: in the book Bad Things will happen, and a severe storm echoes that. However, the storm doesn't break and instead a dark cloud hovers over Grace for much of the narrative. It only covers Grace - there is a distinct boundary, so much so that one can stick one's arm in or out and see the difference. At one stage a group of searching police go in and out of Grace, passing between light and dark as they do so. The marvel draws sightseers and even TV crews until the storm does, finally, break.

Yet this cloud, which doesn't refer to anything upon which the story depends, only puzzles. Yes, it's an extended metaphor for the state of Grace (sorry, I couldn't resist that) but Whitaker's gritty writing, his empathy with his characters and his lucid dissections of their motives, fears, hopes and dreams, would easily drive the story without it.

But I'd regard that as a minor point, really. This book is magnificent and I'd strongly recommend it. - I'm off now to read Tall Oaks, Whitaker's first book.


18 August 2017

Review - The Witch at Wayside Cross

The Witch at Wayside Cross (Jesperson and Lane, Book II)
Lisa Tuttle
Jo Fletcher Books, 10 August 2017
PB, 361pp

I'm grateful to the publisher for an advance copy of this book.

Jesperson and Lane have just solved their first major case when a man bangs violently on their door - and almost immediately drops dead. The police rule death by natural causes, but the detectives are determined to find out what really happened.

Mr Manning was screaming about witches before his death....

If you loved the first Jesperson and Lane book, The Somnambulist and the Psychic Thief, you'll enjoy this - though Tuttle has written a rather different story, it's every bit as good.

While The Somnambulist and the Psychic Thief was very much an action story with lashings of penny dreadful menace, this is a slower, more reflective book. It particularly showcases the abilities of Miss Lane: indeed, while Jesperson comes and goes on a rather erratic schedule, much of the discovery is driven by Lane and her ability to get alongside the inhabitants of the various dwellings - whether vicarage or wise woman's abode - where the clues to Mr Manning's death may be found. (My wife being a vicar, I was rather alarmed at the idea - which I think is accurate for Victorian days - that strangers could just turn up at a remote vicarage and expect to be put up!)

The story that Lane draws out is fascinating, much of the book gradually exposing the range of views that Victorians might hold on witchcraft, cunning-men, fairies and the like. The Norfolk that Jesperson and Lane visit is a mesh of rivalrous arcane practitioners with Manning himself having been involved in something called the "School of British Wisdom" whose purpose is to revive the learning of the "druids". They, and pretty much everyone else our duo meet, have all sorts of views on the so-called "screaming pits" to be found in local fields and woods, as well as different attitudes to witchcraft, whether historical or modern. The book is a reminder - like The Somnambulist and the Psychic Thief - of the spread of opinion about the supernatural, and the blurred distinction between that and science, that obtained then. Like the Victorians, we're in real doubt whether or the events have a "natural" explanation (or even what that means).

The key to Manning's death is apparently located somewhere in this complex web, which also draws in a missing baby, poisonings and the "good neighbours" (nothing to do with Ramsay St). But there are many false turns, misleading theories and a startling lack of hard evidence, so it's a tough case to crack with surprises right to the end.

As I said earlier, there is less action in this story than in the previous book, and I felt at times that the conversations over tea in drawing rooms used, especially in the first half, to establish the facts of the case teeter on the edge of becoming long-winded. Teeter, but don't fall over - Tuttle avoids that, not least because alongside the investigation, there are darker veins running through the book.

First, she maps the attitude of men towards women, seeing them as means to ends, whether those are commercial, such as obtaining property, or more "spiritual". This attitude comes out quite nakedly on a couple of occasions but is always simmering away. It's something Lane is alert to, and even the presence of her friend Jesperson makes her uneasy at one point:

"His eyes glinted in the moonlight and I suddenly felt unaccountably nervous, and looked away at the empty, tree-lined road ahead".

Apart from a sense of menace, the books shows women not being listened to. Often, men whom Lane is asking question of respond to Jesperson instead, and at one point we're told, "...the men were not so ready to believe she knew what she was talking about..." These moments give the story a real bite, counterpointed, of course, by the recurring debate about witchcraft and the treatment of women regarded as witches.

As well as the treatment of gender, there are also some carefully observed class attitudes. One may draw a comparison between the treatment by the Rev and Mrs Ringer of their servant, Maria, and the superstitious attitude to the fairies (those "good neighbours"). You mustn't, you see, acknowledge or thank the fairies of they do you a good turn. Similarly, Maria's toil in the kitchen goes unremarked: when she's ill one evening and Jesperson and Lane do the work instead, nobody remarks on it. I'm reminded of George Orwell's observation of old women carrying firewood in North Africa: that it was just wood going by.

So, within this apparently charming and engaging fantasy crime novel, there is a good deal of shrewd social commentary.

Overall, a solid follow-up to The Somnambulist and the Psychic Thief, showing that Tuttle isn't simply planning to repeat a successful formula - popular though I'm sure that would be - but is letting this series evolve. I wonder what she'll do with it next?



16 August 2017

Review - The New Voices of Fantasy

The New Voices of Fantasy
ed Peter S Beagle and Jacob Weisman
Tachyon, San Francisco,  August 2017
PB, 336pp

I'm grateful to the publisher for an advance e-copy of this book via NetGalley.

It was fun to read a themed SFF anthology that wasn't themed, if you see what I mean - not a book about magic, ghosts, the apocalypse (given current events I'm especially glad it wasn't about that) but which still had a focus: showcasing new voices. These are writers who've perhaps had a few stories published (in the case of Rajaniemi at least, a trilogy of novels) but who are still bringing something perceptibly different to the table - whether that be content, point of view or who they are.

Of course, what you regard as "new" will depend where you've coming from and what you read. For the record, I'd only heard of three of the authors here (Wong, Gladstone and Rajaniemi) before and I'd only read one, so for me, the book presented a lot of really new stuff and I look forward to following up many of these authors. Others may have encountered more of them before, but it's such a wide ranging collection that I hope everyone will see something new or different here.

So - what of the stories? They range from the apparent simplicity of the fairy story or fable ("Duck","The Cartographer Wasps and Anarchist Bees", “The Pauper Prince and the Eucalyptus Jinn”) to knotty horror ("Hungry Daughters of Starving Mothers", "The Haunting of Apollo A7LB") to fantasy romance (“The Tallest Doll in New York City”) adventure (“My Time Among the Bridge Blowers”) and all points in between. Many are multilayered, reflective stories - see for example how "Pauper Prince" and "Bridge Blowers" in particular both echo and critique the kind of story they appear, on the surface. There is a lot of dialogue with the existing body of SFF work going on here, though it doesn't stop the stories themselves being immediate, entertaining and fun.

In "Hungry Daughters of Starving Mothers" (Alyssa Wong) the balance of power - and danger - between Jen and the (frankly repellent) men she dates swings back and to, only made less stable by her supernatural abilities. Wong deftly wrongfoots the reader about where it is all going, creating something very disturbing indeed

"Selkie Stories are for Losers" (Sofia Samatar) plays games with the traditional selkie story, the unnamed protagonist both retelling examples of the story and embodying them (or is she?) It's a sweet, touching story in places ("Mona gets out, yanking the little piece of my heart that stays with her wherever she goes") but we don't know if there's a happy ending or not.

"Tornado’s Siren" by Brooke Bolander also has romance, and dash of humour as a tornado falls for Rhea (and why not?) Bolander makes this far fetched idea totally plausible and creates in Rhea a determined and self possessed hero who the reader is cheering on by the end. It's also pretty sharp: "You can't fall in love with destruction. What would that say about a person?"

"Left the Century to Sit Unmoved" (Sarah Pinsker) was my very favourite of these stories. It's an intensely moving, deeply imagined, account of a local place (a pool) and a custom (diving in from the top of a waterfall) that may or may not be linked to a series of disappearances - of what this means to one of the left behind, and of how the community bends and grows around the unexplained, like a tree enclosing a railing. Just mesmerising - at the same time totally mundane, and totally entrancing.

"A Kiss with Teeth" by Max Gladstone is a monster, rather than a horror, story, an imaging of how a vampire might fare in a domestic setting which - at the same time - has clever things to say about modern life, loneliness, the city... and even the plight of the overworked teacher. I don't think I'll soon forget the glimpse of tired Angela, in her one room apartment, at the end of a long day.

"Jackalope Wives" (Ursula Vernon) is another fairytale, loosely Native American in setting, almost a counterpoint to "Selkie Stories are for Losers". Here the transformed beast is rather different but the dynamic - about possession and control, about taming the wild - is the same. An old story in some ways but one that never stales.

"The Cartographer Wasps and Anarchist Bees" (E Lily Yu) reminded me of Animal Farm. It's a sort of fable, a story of bees and wasps, of colonialism, survival and evolution, very much a fable, deeply thought provoking and I think a tale one could return to again and again.

"The Practical Witch’s Guide to Acquiring Real Estate" (A. C. Wise) has  more than a dash of humour as it informs the reader of all the ways to become a homeowner. But it becomes clear that for a witch, this isn't a matter of simply paying for a house - quite apart from the attendant dangers of local prejudice (which are spelled out in an almost unbearably sad section). No, it's more like a courtship, always with the possibility of heartbreak. Funny, yes, also sad and wise.

"The Tallest Doll in New York City" by Maria Dahvana Headley is a mesmerising little love story, set, of curse, on St Valentine's Day. Note perfect, it tales an outrageous concept and makes it works so well.

"The Haunting of Apollo A7LB" (Hannu Rajaniemi) is either a ghost story, or science fiction, or probably both. Apollo A7LB is a space suit displayed in a museum, and it seems that it's not as empty as you'd think.

"Here Be Dragons" (Chris Tarry) isn't really about dragon hunting. It's about domesticity, building a life and raising kids - and maturity. And immaturity. A very odd story, a very old story in many ways but perfectly told and among my favourites here.

"The One They Took Before" (Kelly Sandoval) might be part of an emerging genre, portraying what happens after the cool events of the fantasy story. I thought of Seanan McGuire's "Every Heart a Doorway" or Alan Garner's "Boneland" - both books that, in very different ways, explore the trauma of the survivor, as Sandoval does so well here. A striking and poignant story.

"Tiger Baby" (JY Yang) is, I think, about becoming oneself - and how this might not be quite what you expect - perhaps a common theme but here it's done in such a hauntingly beautiful way while also being so prosaic, centring on the day to day details of a life. Another of my favourites here

"The Duck" (Ben Loory) is about a duck, about love, about devotion... VERY fairytalelike, very beautiful.

"Wing" (Amal El-Mohtar) is a story about books, and people, and finding the right person, and the right book. A gem, and another of my favourites.

"The Philosophers" (Adam Ehrlich Sachs) is actually three stories, which look at aspects of the father-son relationship, making metaphors literal - about communication, about identity and being your own person - and inviting the reader to really think.

"My Time Among the Bridge Blowers" (Eugene Fischer) sees an explorer - perhaps not in our world - visiting  a remote people who have an amazing talent. Can he bear to simply watch and wonder or will he interfere, setting in train future trouble for this already suffering tribe?

"The Husband Stitch"(Carmen Maria Machado) is a profound story that, slightly, broke my heart. It's a story of a life, with very little overt fantasy to it but... something... lurks in the background. One detail. One flaw in a relationship. Can you see it? Can you touch it? Will it matter, in the end?

"The Pauper Prince and the Eucalyptus Jinn" (Usman T. Malik) is the longest story in this book, practically a novella. It tells of a princess, a Jinn and a family legacy, drawing on a rich vein of Islamic folklore is a fresh and arresting way and using this to comment on the lives of modern-day Pakistani Americans. An absorbing story.

The collections as a whole is very strong, with something for everyone. They are all great stories, though different readers will have their favourites. Whether as a solid collection in its own right or as a sampler for these authors, I'd recommend this to anyone interested in where fantasy is going.


12 August 2017

Review - The Death and Life of Schneider Wrack

The Death and Life of Schneider Wrack
Nate Crowley
Abaddon Books, 10 August 2017
PB, 400pp

I'm grateful to the publisher for an advance copy of this book via Netgalley.

Schneider Wrack wakes in hell.

Then he revises his opinions; he’s on a factory ship.

Then he re-revises – this is Hell, and he’s not out of it. He is dead, and has been reborn as a zombie, condemned to work until he rots, Wrack is part of an undead workforce, slaving to carve up the great sea creatures of the planet Ocean to feed his native city, Lipos-Tholos. On decks slick with blubber, in the driving rail, they toil ceaselessly until, too decomposed to work, too cursed to die, they are left stacked in charnel heaps. All this takes place on the great ship, the Tavuto.  Lipos-Tholos has been besieged for generations and depends on the sea - and especially the Tavuto - for food.

In this far future, there has been time for humanity to spread across the planets, to form a civilization ("the lemniscatus") which is now in decay, but, in its prime, opened gates between far locations - gates forgotten to worlds forgotten, gates and worlds rediscovered and lost again. So the great whale-like creatures that Tavuto (a "nightmare in steel, floodlights and scale") hunts, disassembles and renders, flow back through the gate to whatever world that city's on - while the zombies and their human handlers face the horrors of Ocean: they have "lips like salted dogs" and experience "the piercing, ammoniac stench of a sharkmonger's stall at midsummer".

It's a very vivid, stark novel, the sights, sounds and - especially - smells being rendered viscerally. You can taste the salt, smell the decaying blubber, the fraying flesh of the zombies, feel their despair as they sink into the dark dreams that keep them under control.

But Wrack wakes from these dreams, and the first part of the story is then about how he finds himself again, striking up an improbable friendship with a woman, Mouana. There are limits to this friendship ("no point in holding hands like lovers; we're both far too rotted in the funbits to care about that") - but what they do both have an appetite for, is fighting.

So the story proceeds with Wrack's and Mouana's revolt against the powers that zombified them. It's a long road and it takes a great number of twists and turns, bringing in both Wrack's past (he may have been one of the rebels - the Pipers - who oppose Lipos-Tholos's government. Or he may be an innocent bystander) and Mouana's (spoilers!) All around are the hints of an older, higher technology – like the zombifying process – which present-day societies are clumsily trying to use.

All this leads, after many adventures, betrayals and revelations, to another world entirely, a jungle world - Grand Amazon itself, where the zombies are eaten dead by bugs and fragments of an even older civilization - the hulk of a burned out starship, a city of lizard people - loom and are then forgotten.

Only at the end of this quest, in High Sarawak, will the pair find what they need.

This book is in three parts - The Sea Hates a Coward, Fisheries and Justice and Grand Amazon - which have previously been published separately (do bear this in mind if you've read, or especially bought, them separately). I hadn't read those books so I don't know if Crowley has reworked the material at all to bring the stories together but they do read very much as a single narrative, with puzzles and mysteries from the earlier parts (such as what happened to Wrack to get him on Tavuto) explained in good time. It's an intense read, very sensual as I noted above, but also very distinctive in style, both evoking great adventure stories by writers like Rider-Haggard, Conan Doyle and, of course, in the Ocean sections, Melville and also adding a distinct sense of darkness, of unease.

All that, and this is a "zombie uprising" story told from the perspective of the zombies themselves... and it makes them sympathetic (and at times funny). It is also, though, a ruthless book, with innocent blood poured out in torrents and, for a long time, seemingly no moral centre. But do hang in there.

I don't know whether I should call this SF, fantasy, adventure, or a combination of these, or something entirely different. For me it read as very new, very different and I'd strongly recommend it.

For more info about the book, and links to buy, see here.



9 August 2017

Review - Age of Assassins by RJ Barker

Age of Assassins (The Wounded Kingdom 1)
RJ Barker
Orbit, 3 August 2017
PB, 393pp

This is a dream of what was

I'm grateful to the publisher for an advance copy of this book.

Age of Assassins, as the title suggests, is thoroughgoing fantasy. I don't normally go for cloaks, blades and so forth, so I did approach the book sceptically, but the sheer verve of the writing, the portrayal of the characters and the depth of the worldbuilding won me over - as did the taut, suspenseful plot.

Girton Club-Foot is an apprentice assassin. He can effortlessly deploy all the Iterations needed to kill (The Quicksteps, The Precise Steps, The Maiden’s Blush and so on) as well as using tricks such as The Whisper That Goes Straight to the Ear and being able to pick a lock even when balancing in a stream or ordure. He's also pretty nifty with a longsword/ stabsword combination, despite his disability.

This is all courtesy of his Master, Merela Karn, who rescued him – bought him – from a slave auction as a boy and has raised him since, providing the only home he's ever had, albeit a shifting, dangerous one, and teaching him her deadly craft. (Merela maintains there's an element of justice in the choice of their victims, but still...) The relationship between them is well done, respect mingled with (unspoken) love and an undercurrent of adolescent rebellion. I wanted to know more about them, but Barker keeps things teasingly vague and despite glimpses of backstory – how the two met, his first kill – the heart of this book is the present, as the two killers seek to infiltrate Castle Maniyadoc for their latest commission.

The world they live in is grim.

In the Tired Lands the line between villager and bandit is often drawn by the hunger of children.

The Lands suffer a blight ("souring"), apparently caused by magicians in the past: consequently, magic is persecuted and spellcasters, once captured, are literally bled dry to redeem the “soured” ground as are criminals, the old and anyone else who displeases the feudal rulers.

It's one of these rulers that Merela and Girton end up commissioned to protect, going undercover in Castle Maniyadoc to discover who is threatening Prince Aydor (this takes Girton into the heart of a group of trainee knights, a setting where he has to conceal his fighting prowess and cope with bullying and teenage rivalry). The problem is, almost everyone would be happy to see the spoiled, brattish Prince dead. Motives abound, not only personal but political, and the whole thing is complicated by the arrival of the travelling Festival which provides a cover for a multitude of killers. Oh, and a series of deaths starts which may or may not be linked to whoever is threatening Aydor.

So essentially this is a mystery story, albeit one involving some thrilling combat, the interference of dead gods, betrayals, devious politics and - in the end - a most unlikely enemy. To cap it all, Girton falls head over heels in love - his first time, distracting him from his mission. And there are secrets Merela knows about Girton that will shake his world – just as she has history which will astonish him. Will this split them apart just when they need more than ever to be able to trust one another?

Set against the background of a decaying empire (from the empty yards around the castle to the yellow, soured earth itself) and pulling no punches about the grinding oppression and misery of the feudal order, this novel skilfully avoids cliches and creates some truly great characters, friendships - and enmities.

And it's only the first confession of the murderer, Girton Club-Foot. I'm already looking forward to more.

This is a dream of what was